There is a right way to study theology—and a wrong way.
The Reformer Martin Luther once taught three rules for approaching theology based on Psalm 119. These three rules are Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio.
Luther taught that if we keep to these rules, we will become as learned as the early church fathers, the best church councils, and the greatest reformers.
The first rule is the rule of prayer. We are to begin by kneeling. In other words, to begin to study theology we must have enough humility to ask God for wisdom in our endeavor to learn the things of God: “Lord, grant us your Holy Spirit that we might understand your Holy Word.”
The second rule is regarding meditation. The kind of meditation Luther has in mind though is not inward but outward. The best way to contemplate is not off in the fortress of solitude but rather by hearing sermons, reading the Bible, honoring our mothers and fathers, and helping out others in need.
Luther said, "let him not shut himself up in a nook . . . and there entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that . . . he has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments."
In other words, we meditate well when we are moved away from focusing so much on ourselves and are more concerned with what God has said and what others around us need. When we read something, we should pause to consider what we have read. Outwardly repeat key insights and important words or concepts, read and reread masterpieces, and pay attention to them with much reflection.
Ask questions. Consider other interpretations and weigh them against the rest. The best theologians are those who know they can never fully comprehend all things written in the Word of God. They are theologians who constantly return to Scripture, the well of living water, and find refreshment each time.
Read the text, speak the text, sing the text, and listen to it being read at church, home, and other group settings. Audiobooks and other available audio technology are useful tools for listening to God’s Word. God gives us his Holy Spirit through his external Word, which is preached, read, heard, sung, and spoken to us.
The third and final rule is, strangely, temptation. This may seem out of place in the study of theology, but how can we say we truly understand theology if we never experience trials, temptations, and the assault of the evil one against all of our striving to understand the Scriptures? When we are beaten, oppressed, and distressed, these difficulties work together to make decent theologians out of us all.
When we are confronted with a trial or when we fail or triumph over a temptation, we are each time driven again to Jesus Christ. Only in him can we find security and safe refuge. Only in him can we understand the goal of all theology: to gaze upon the grace of God in Christ (Ps. 27:4). Without such experience, we may have obtained intellectual knowledge about God, but we will have never known wisdom.
Theology takes place not in the ivory tower but also in the daily life and struggles of the Christian who prays, meditates, and fights each battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil by clinging to Jesus Christ.